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Privacy and Contemporary Motor Vehicles

Writing for NBC News, Olivia Solon provides a useful overview of just how much data is collected by motor vehicles—using sensors embedded in the vehicles as well as collected by infotainment systems when linked with a smartphone—and how law enforcement agencies are using that information.

Law enforcement agencies have been focusing their investigative efforts on two main information sources: the telematics system — which is like the “black box” — and the infotainment system. The telematics system stores a vehicle’s turn-by-turn navigation, speed, acceleration and deceleration information, as well as more granular clues, such as when and where the lights were switched on, the doors were opened, seat belts were put on and airbags were deployed.

The infotainment system records recent destinations, call logs, contact lists, text messages, emails, pictures, videos, web histories, voice commands and social media feeds. It can also keep track of the phones that have been connected to the vehicle via USB cable or Bluetooth, as well as all the apps installed on the device.

Together, the data allows investigators to reconstruct a vehicle’s journey and paint a picture of driver and passenger behavior. In a criminal case, the sequence of doors opening and seat belts being inserted could help show that a suspect had an accomplice.

Of note, rental cars as well as second hand vehicles also retain all of this information and it can then be accessed by third-parties. It’s pretty easy to envision a situation where rental companies are obligated to assess retained data to determine if a certain class or classes of offences have been committed, and then overshare information collected by rental vehicles to avoid their own liability that could follow from failing to fully meet whatever obligations are placed upon them.

Of course, outright nefarious actors can also take advantage of the digital connectivity built into contemporary vehicles.

Just as the trove of data can be helpful for solving crimes, it can also be used to commit them, Amico said. He pointed to a case in Australia, where a man stalked his ex-girlfriend using an app that connected to her high-tech Land Rover and sent him live information about her movements. The app also allowed him to remotely start and stop her vehicle and open and close the windows.

As in so many different areas, connectivity is being included into vehicles without real or sufficient assessment of how to secure new technologies and defray harmful or undesirable secondary uses of data. Engineers rarely worry about these outcomes, corporate lawyers aren’t attentive to these classes of issues, and the security of contemporary vehicles is generally garbage. Combined, this means that government bodies are almost certainly going to expand the ranges of data they can access without having to first go through a public debate about the appropriateness of doing so or creation of specialized warrants that would limit data mining. Moreover, in countries with weak policing accountability structures, it will be impossible to even assess the regularity at which government officials obtain access to information from cars, how such data lets them overcome other issues they state they are encountering (e.g., encryption), or the utility of this data in investigating crimes and introducing it as evidence in court cases.